Here’s The Thing With Ad Blockers and Open Access: The Present Big Publishing Economy

by Raizel Liebler

I’m already paying for content. So are you. Even if you have never taken out your credit card to pay. But it is highly likely that your money that you can choose to spend on print (or print-ish) media / scholarship isn’t going where you want to read.

When I’m online, I block ads and similar icky things. But I make sure to leave alone site metrics and similar items that help sites better understand how I use their site, so they can see time on site and other related information. I will turn off the ad-blocker for indie media sites, but not for those sites that now have those you’d better behave and turn off your ad-blocker messages.

I will not change my personal policy regarding turning off ad-blockers, not only because of the possibility of malware, but because I (or my academic institution) have already paid for this content, albeit frequently in a slightly different form. All of the places I’ve encountered with the anti-ad-block messages, I already have a library subscription for if I truly want to read the content!

For those lucky enough to be connected to an academic institution (or hint have a public library card), it is likely that most of the clicky-clicky stuff is available, but it takes some digging.

The obscurity factor is what keeps people from using library databases. And copyright. And licensing restrictions set by publishers. And the ease of just Googling.

 So what happens when someone that isn’t Google tries to smash through the process? Remember, the final Google Books decision took ten years. To use tech terms, Sci-Hub, a “disruptor to the traditional academic model” provides free access to academic scientific research. But it was sued by Elsevier, the publishing behemoth in New York Southern U.S. District Court (No. 1:15-cv-04282-RWS), caused the part of the site that is U.S. based to shutter, but can’t have an immediate larger impact, as mirror sites exist.

While it seems like it would make sense for taxpayers, the funders, those that paid the salaries of the researchers, the places that have the infrastructure to make the research possible, or at least the researcher-authors to own the published versions of the research, frequently the default is for for-profit publishers to lock research behind a paywall high enough to keep the White Walkers out.

According to Science’s quoting of George Washington University (GWU) Libraries: “Scholarly resources are not luxury goods. [] But they are priced as though they were.” Robert Darnton, director of Harvard Library in 2012, told the Guardian: “We all face the same paradox. We faculty do the research, write the papers, referee papers by other researchers, serve on editorial boards, all of it for free … and then we buy back the results of our labour at outrageous prices.”

To repeat: academic institutions pay for the salaries of those that write scholarship, then pay to “access” that scholarship. And there is also frequently the step in between where academia pays to submit or publish the article!

And those that produce the articles, at least 16,019 academics are “boycotting “ Elsevier, due to its journal pricing and access policies. After Science showed off several aspects of Sci-Hub, including the 10 most-downloaded papers, The Chronicle spoke to three top authors. Their reactions ranged from “meh” to yay, but they understood the importance of making research accessible.

Many academic institutions, researchers, and increasingly through open access mandates, more research is being made publicly available, but it is a long slog. Reminder: by the time research has hit an open access repository, it has already been paid for – either directly or indirectly – frequently with tax dollars!

Unlike in most other fields, law is weird in regards to our scholarly journals. These reasons include, but are not limited to: they are edited by students in almost every case; there are so, very, very many of them (seriously weep at the 947 law U.S. scholarly journals listed here!); and their minimal and increasingly free cost to readers, through full back-runs on institutional repositories.

However, metrics….

Many in legal academia, no different than other academics, like comparing themselves to others. And while there are some new specialty models, such as looking at comparative citations, such as these for intellectual property, these are sparse. So what metric unfortunately is used? The SSRN download count! SSRN is a repository from the “surfing the internet superhighway” era, primarily focused on law and economics.

Like with any other metric, the SSRN download count is imperfect, but it has the additional difficulty of being as exact for comparison purposes with another article for any other legal scholarship as page views.

But despite the increased use of other measures, such as institutional-based repositories, individual academic-created websites, Google Scholar, and more, this metric continues to be an important measurement – in a similar way that mainstream publishers displaying ads to readers.

And now Elsevier has purchased SSRN, meaning that this important metric is in the hands of the publisher that is being boycotted by thousands of academics. It’ll be interesting to see if finally legal academics truly embrace other more open access platforms. This will likely happen if all of those papers that authors put up on SSRN without retaining copyright finally are removed, because non-Elsevier publishers are upset by this purchase.

But all this was predictable — both the adblocker race and the uncertainty about how to “solve” the future of law-based pre-prints. But until Elsevier took over SSRN, the fact that it was already for-profit wasn’t a concern; only when the possibility of taking away control from authors became a real possibility, did the freakout occur.

So for those who write legal scholarship (and most apply to other scholarship shared on Sci-hub), these are some of the things you can do:

  1. Right now, do not sign any publication agreement that prevents you from sharing the published version of law review articles you author on a site you control or your institutional repository. Law already has it so good, compared to other fields, so prove how legal scholarship can be an exemplar.
  2. Right now, consider only giving a license to law reviews that publish your scholarship rather than signing over copyright. Also consider Creative Commons licenses.
  3. Right now, work with librarians, archivists, and others that can help get your scholarship available on repositories, including copyright permissions.
  4. Starting now, publish in journals that make their entire run available in a citable format free online to you and to readers from day of publication. Other scholarly areas don’t have this as a possibility, since paying for open access or just to publish — let law reviews lead the way.
  5. Starting now, support efforts by law reviews and librarians at your home institution to make scholarship more available through author retaining copyright policies and open access institutional repositories. If you don’t know, ask and get involved.
  6. In the long run, support alternative solutions for pre-prints and for curated listings of forthcoming scholarship. Paul Gower is thinking through lots of possibilities.
  7. In the short & the long run, understand that if you don’t support structural change within academia and publishing now, your access to your research materials and others’ access to your work may disappear.

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